- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
For Justin Lavenue and Dennis Gobis, “de rigueur” defines the bar they hope to open in Austin in the next year or two. Offering sterling service is so integral to their vision that they’ve decided to call their big downtown space by the French phrase, which describes something that is proper or necessary.
In the meantime, they’ve got two smaller spaces that double as event venues and as practice runs for the much larger bar. The Roosevelt Room and the Madison, next door to each other on West Fifth Street downtown, are open Thursday through Saturday nights as a bar and a dance club, respectively, until the two bartending partners decide to break down the wall between the two for De Rigueur.
“We want to make it clear that even though we’ve put a lot of heart and soul into this bar, the Roosevelt Room, it’s the interim concept,” Lavenue says of the cocktail bar. “It’s the test kitchen so that people can come in and see what we’re about, see what level of quality we’re going for.”
Lavenue and Gobis, both of whom have worked in lauded local cocktail spots such as Whisler’s, Drink.Well and Half Step, decided to team up and open their own place when they realized they had a similar idea in mind: a focus on cocktails featuring house-made syrups, sodas, bitters and other important cocktail ingredients.
But opening a restaurant bar as big as De Rigueur is planned to be — a whopping 10,000 square feet and three levels — wasn’t the original plan. The idea came after getting a lease for both the Madison, which has been a dance club for several years under the same name, and the bar that would become the Roosevelt Room. They saw that they could turn the spaces into something Austin doesn’t have much of yet: a high-volume craft cocktail spot.
“There are so many good bars in Austin, but there are only a select few that are pushing the boundaries. We’d like to join those ranks,” Gobis says.
He and Lavenue have spent time in cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago and seen how bars like Death & Co., Trick Dog and the Aviary are consistently “testing the boundaries of what’s possible in a drink, but doing it in a highly executable way,” Lavenue says. They want to open that kind of bar here.
Once De Rigueur combines the Roosevelt Room and the Madison into one space, it’ll have a little bit of everything to offer people wanting a night on the town. The large downstairs — which already has plenty of seating — will be a restaurant, while the second-floor mezzanine, Lavenue says, will be a cocktail bar. The partners are also considering turning the rooftop into another hangout area, complete with punch service and draft cocktails.
“The space will lend itself, we are hoping, to every kind of drinking situation,” he says. “You want to have a great meal and a couple of drinks with dinner, then the downstairs is perfect. If you’re seeking to have a unique cocktail experience that will challenge your palate and some light bites to sustain you, that’s upstairs. And if you want to hang out in the sun and have a few beers, light refreshing cocktails or share some punch with friends, then the patio is for you.”
Gobis, who’s done some brewing in the past, also wants to make sure De Rigueur has a stellar beer list.
Both men recognize they have a long way to go before De Rigueur opens, but they hope practice with the Roosevelt Room will get them there.
The opening cocktail menu at the Roosevelt Room features seven original drinks, including the De Rigueur, a Scotch-topped spin on the classic bourbon-based Brown Derby.
Another one, Cigar Box, with mezcal, smoked black tea syrup, lavender and tobacco bitters, and a flamed cinnamon stick, is a particular favorite of Lavenue’s. He and Gobis are also proud of one called Do You Even Lift?, which falls into a newly created category of cocktails — lifts — with dark rum, coffee liqueur, orgeat, cream, root beer, cayenne and cinnamon.
Plus, the last Friday of every month will have special cocktails in honor of the night’s Roosevelt Room Jazz Series, which will draw in Texas artists like Ephraim Owens and Shelley Carrol playing tributes to the jazz greats of old, from Miles Davis to John Coltrane. Listening to their soulful songs is sure to be transportive in the cocktail bar’s elegant space — in part thanks to the attention to detail Lavenue and Gobis have brought to the Roosevelt Room.
“We maintain very rigorous standards for quality and level of service,” Lavenue said. “We want that to be a focus of the bar. We want to give people a place where they can connect with each other. Where they know they won’t have to worry about consistency and they can just enjoy themselves and the experience.”